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Community Councils: What Have They Done And What Is Their Future?

Community Councils–What Have They Done And What Is Their Future?


By John Collier, Director, Training School for Community Workers, New York

Editor’s Note: This Paper was Presented at the National Conference Of Social Work Annual Meeting in 1919

I want to insist at once that Community Councils are independent, self -operating neighborhood organizations. As such they were instituted through President Wilson’s call issued by the Council of National Defense. As such they remain, now that the war is over, to help in the work of reconstruction and in the upbuilding of a useful and beautiful leisure life. Even in wartime, the self-supporting and self-governing character of Community Councils was insisted on by the Council of National Defense. The clear vision of Edward L. Burchard and Elliot Dunlap Smith are to be thanked for this, but it was in the spirit of Secretary Baker, chairman of the council, and of the President.

Self-supporting and self-governing institutions, though federated on a metropolitan scale, are the Community Councils of New York. Such they are, with varying types of organization, in California, in Oklahoma, in Illinois, in North Carolina. I stress this fact because if it is lost sight of, the meaning of Community Councils is completely missed, and because if through any cause, in months to come, it should cease to be the fact, Community Councils will have perished.

Abraham Lincoln said: “It is no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this country.” The community movement, of which Community Councils are the most ambitious phase, is one of the efforts to save American democracy. I shall be brief now, and shall speak only of urban democracy. Rural democracy, in the great West anyhow, is in no present danger of overthrow. But urban democracy was tottering when James Bryce described America forty years ago. It is tottering still tottering forward, but will it ever arise and walk? Municipal efficiency has not brought municipal democracy and there are thinking men who believe democracy has no place in the intricate doings of a municipal government. “It is the citizen’s business not to say: What shall I do, but whom shall I trust!” A competent thinker intoned this dirge of free government the other day, and did not even know he was chanting a dirge. He was chanting the dirge of efficient government as well as democratic government, he was singing the prelude to municipal Bolshevism. For the prestige of the good, of the rich, of the upper class reformer is nearly ended, Demos is contra-suggestible to that sort of prestige, Demos votes men out of office, not into office when politics become a business of trusting not of doing.

Plain Men and City Governments

I am not “casting off” on commission government, on the executive budget or city manager or any device for getting public work efficiently done. But every city faces one identical problem, the problem of getting its real policies thought about, its technical processes understood and valued by the plain man. How the average citizen can develop a feeling of proprietorship toward, of informed enthusiasm for, the work of our health departments and school boards and correction boards and city planning commissions-is this not a first-class question and a neglected question in every city? The Community Council, the modernized town meeting, seeks among other things to answer this question.

Let us glance at the history of Community Councils. New York City will provide an example. First we were troubled up there about the recreation problem. We had “farmed out” the people’s leisure to commercial movie managers and theatrical syndicates and dance hall proprietors. We’had even “farmed out” our public lakes to grasping concessionaires. We discovered that this meant we had “farmed out” to commercial enterprise the psychic and largely the moral and civic life of our boys and girls and men and women. We spent, not very effectually, three million dollars a year on public and philanthropic recreation, which we gave away. The merchants collected twelve million odd dollars a month through shabby recreation enterprise which the people paid for, the people’s conscious motive being thrills, and the motive of the enterprise being the sale of tickets. My figures are taken from the books of the Collector of Internal Revenue, and the twelve millions a month does not include the expenditure in saloons.

Leisure is Civic Opportunity

So we said in New York: “Leisure is life itself, in a great city of specialized industrial activity. Leisure is citizenship, it is continuous education, it is the family’s opportunity to strengthen its ties. Can it be likewise established, that leisure is the people’s opportunity to engage in co-operative enterprise, to escape from that most crass and cynical of all profiteering, recreation profiteering? Democracy in industry must come slowly, perhaps. Democracy in expert government may have to be gradual. But in recreation, in leisure, may there not be a democracy at once?”

The new type of school community center was established. Mr. Gibney has told you what the community center has done, where it has arrived. It is a people’s clubhouse where the participants run the enterprise and pay the bills, but it is carried out in public properties in partnership with the state. The community center succeeded, in New York as in other places. New York has a hundred of these centers now, the nation has thousands. The community center brought people young and old together in groups, it gave varied opportunity for careless joy and creative effort as well, it necessitated parlimentary action and restored to the individual a crumb of that loaf of power to control his own destiny which had been taken away from him by the specialization of work, the integration of business and all the other power-building soul-corroding things incidental to our latter nineteenth century evolution.

The community center was a first step. The second step, in New York City, was represented by the Health Districts and the Community Clearing House. These institutions were methods, official or quasi-official, for decentralizing the complicated human work of the city government and of private welfare agencies, in such a manner as to make this work understandable by laymen, to facilitate the co-operation of specialists with each other and with the people, and yet to conserve the expertness and standardization which has been realized through centralized efficiency. Both Health District Number One and the Community Clearing House in New York were affiliated with community centers in their neighborhoods, and they were consciously designed to make possible a give-and-take between the people organized in groups, on the one side, and the expertness of society, embodied in public departments and private agencies and occupational groups, on the other side.

Community Centers and Councils

Now we come to the Community Council. War-time saw an intensified social impulse among the people. It taxed heavily the existing departments of government and the established social agencies. It brought a sudden multiplication of agencies-specialized agencies created to meet war requirements. How could the voluntary effort of each citizen be enlisted, how could intelligibility be brought about in the labyrinth of public and private social work, in order that citizens might enlist for home service in the war? How could morale be sustained? One answer was the Community Council of National Defense. In New York, the Community Councils were promoted by the same workers who had for years had promoted community centers and who had administered or observed the Health Districts and the Community Clearing House. The Community Clearing House was bodily incorporated in the new movement, and was transported to the Municipal Building as the nucleus of that overhead service which was charged with the promotion and the discreet guidance of Community Councils. I mention this continuity of effort in order to bring it out, that Community Councils are not sudden impulses that arose with the war to end when it ended, but are part of that work which has gathered momentum for eight years past, which has developed a varied technique, which has made its blunders and profited by them. And in the Community Council movement, this experience and purpose can be stated with almost dogmatic clarity.

First. Community organization must be both geographical and functional. The individuals living within districts; the interest-groups having a stake within districts. Together they make up the Community Council. The interest-groups include the departments of government, the welfare agencies and churches, labor, corporate industry, political societies, and any group whatsoever that has, or claims to have, an interest in the common weal.

Local Self-Determination

Second. Local Councils must work out their own adjustments with regard to internal affairs, but subject to the condition that their self-government is inalienable and that they meet their local costs through local means.

Third. A bundle of faggots is strong, a hundred separate twigs is weak. The Councils must federate, their central parliment must be a living thing, it must provide for mass action and for interchange of experience, of talent, of every asset of each Council.

Let me say here that New York City has eighty-two local Community Councils at present, and that the City Parliment of Councils, meeting at City Hall, is a most living force, acting downward through each Council, controlled wholly by the local Councils.

Fourth. The functional as distinct from the geographical part of the Community Council organization must have city-wide embodiment as well. This result is harder to attain than the city-wide federation of the popular Councils, and fortunately, I think, is proceeding more slowly than the unification of the Councils. But it is proceeding; sections of the city-wide advisory committee of the Councils are already functioning and are delivering important results in New York.

Fifth. A recreation program is basic to the enduring popularity and vitality of a Community Council. It is true that citizenship becomes recreation as the Council goes forward in civic service, but immediately and permanently there are needed the dance and song, the forum and co-operative dramatic enterprise, the street rostrum and theatre on wheels. So manifold, so profound are the advantages of recreation, abundant, continuous, hospitable recreation, that I can’t pause to give detail, but I want to emphasize this point and to add that the principle of self-government, self-activity, selfsupport, and the peril of unwise subsidy, are —pparent as they are in the development of community recreation.

Overhead Service is Required

Finally. Community Councils–therefore, the community movement–need overhead service. In due time the local units will pay for this service just as they now pay their local costs. But they cannot pay for all needed overhead service from the start, still less can they pay for the extension work which is needed to make this movement city-wide for New York, nationwide for America. What relation shall this overhead service bear to the developing movement?

New York has given an answer. An executive committee on Community Councils promotes the movement there, at a monthly cost of about $6,000. No larger budget is needed for the organization of the whole four hundred Council areas, of which eighty-two are now organized. This executive committee controls no Council in any detail. It controls the City Parliment of Councils in no manner. It has irrevocably declared its purpose to transfer all functions, all moneys to the City Parliment of Councils or to its chosen representatives, wherever the Parliment is ready to assume the responsibilities. No subsidy of money or of permanent executive service is offered to local councils. The executive committee sends organizers into the field, advises in technical matters of recreation, health and other problems of the councils, and in co-operation with the public libraries maintains the Community Clearing House for all Council areas.

Such service-such leadership in effect-the Councils welcome. They would repudiate and make war upon any effort at domination, any suggestion of invisible government. And what holds good in New York will hold good wherever genuine community organization exists in the country.

My time is exhausted. Let me summarize, saying first, parenthetically, that organized labor has joined with Community Councils centrally and within the local areas in New York.

Be Patient

I said that the modernized town meeting would answer the question-how scientific government, how the social order could be conserved. Not tomorrow, not yet in five years, will this answer be given. We are engaged in no casual, no hurried or easy task, we who in the community movement are trying to restore a half-forgotten Americanism, to achieve a modern democracy. We remember through what generations of effort the beginnings of free parliamentary government were achieved; through what decades of struggle trade unionism had to beat its way. We remember that the European community movement-the vast co-operative movement of present-day Europe-groped and travailed for fifty years before it became an irresistible new life, continent-wide, within the dying chrysalis of European society. If our task has any importance at all, it has a huge importance; we need not hurry; we must not be lured away by any temporary advantage from those principles by which alone a community worker has the right to live. A subsidy which displaced local democratic control would be such a temptation.

Is it important that our world shall not ultimately be Teutonized-but that it shall be a world of free co-operation, of free responsibility, of full grown human souls? Then the Community Council–the democratic community movement–is entitled to our best powers, to our patient study.

Source: Proceedings of The National Conference Of Social Work Formerly, National Conference Of Charities And Correction at The Forty-Sixth Annual Session Held In Atlantic City, New Jersey June 1-8, 1919. pp. 476-479.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Collier, J. (1919). Community Councils–What have they done and what is their future? Paper presented at the National Conference of Social Work Annual Meeting. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=8997.

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